It’s no secret that hiring managers want to understand why you want their job and to know that you are interested in their company. The first thing recruiters will tell you for your interview is that you need to research the company.
For many people, this is a “rabbit in the headlights” moment: the job sounds like a good fit for you, but what do you need to look for and where would you start?
The problem is that this question is too big to be immediately answered, so most people simple remember that they need a job and this company is advertising one that they think they can do. The difference between a poor candidate and a good one is that the good candidate will feel an affinity for the company. That’s well known, and it’s why applicants talk about their deep passion for the industry, before moving on to the next application and talking about their passion for a different industry.
The difference between a good candidate and a great candidate is not skills, or even attitude: the great candidate has thought about how they personally will make a difference to the business.
The good news is that there is a methodical process you can follow that will provide you with a clear, honest answer. Here are my top tips to research a company in order to be able to honestly tell both yourself and your hiring manager, “here is why I want this job”.
What do they do?
This may sound obvious, but as a hiring manager I have always been surprised by the number of applicants who struggle to articulate what the company does. Company websites, web searches and usually even job specs will give you a good idea of what products the company sells and to whom.
Articulating an understanding of what they do is critical because it forms the foundation of everything else we are going to talk about. Without understanding what the company does, you cannot understand the space they are in; there is no context for their achievements and challenges; and you don’t appreciate the significance of who works there.
What space are they in?
Going into a bit more detail, learn about their market and competitors. Reading about what their competitors do will help you articulate your prospective employer’s unique value proposition. Further, in many cases at least one of the companies will have reproduced some analyst material on their website like a Gartner Magic Quadrant, which not only tells you who the market leaders are but also provides useful information on the market.
Industry news sites, company and competitor websites, and even Wikipedia can provide insight into the market. In particular, take note of how the competitors define the space, as typically you will notice that they each have a definition that favours their own product. With this is mind, you can get insights into the relative strengths and weaknesses of each, and these make very interesting questions to ask a hiring manager.
What have they achieved?
Whether it’s awards, signing up key customers or achieving a successful funding round, it’s always useful to know what your prospective employer has achieved. This information is often available on company websites or social media.
Achievements also make useful interview questions, especially around what attracts new customers and hires, the progression of key projects. You should always have a list of questions that are backed up by research: whether it’s why a particular senior executive recently joined, or the strategic direction (or competitive positioning) of a new product.
What stage are they at?
Businesses at different stages need very different mindsets and skills, so understanding and articulating this can show that you’re up for their specific challenge. As this is more of an interpretation of what the company is doing, take a look for some of the following traits:
Seed companies are very early stage startups that are likely to still be in stealth mode and not have any publicly available information. They will have very few employees and may need to change direction very quickly. Joining a company like this is a big risk but does offer the chance to build something entirely new.
Startups, like seed companies will have few employees and are still a risk. There is likely to be a product that is being used, and the key requirement is to build structures that will allow the company to scale, grow rapidly and acquire users. With both seed and startups, it’s worth enquiring into their management, funding and investors as these make the difference between success and failure.
Transforming companies are established businesses that have reached a plateau and are reinventing themselves to meet the challenges of new competition. In these cases, look for a strategic vision and examine the management team to get a sense of where they’re going. Understanding their competition and why the transformation is needed is also useful. In the case of a transformation, it’s also worth understanding whether you’re dealing with a full business model change, or an “incubated startup”; a small business unit with the freedom to innovate which will later be incorporated back into the “mothership”.
Established companies are those that I would consider to be “business as usual”: they can still be releasing innovative products but their business model isn’t changing. Understanding the space they work in is especially important with established companies as they can be very different from one another; for example a leading blue chip or a retailer will face very different challenges. In these cases, it’s important to understand both the competition (so you join the market leader) and the overall market: you don’t want to join a market leader that is about to be disrupted.
Understanding the business strategy and risks helps present you as someone with a real interest in the company, not just the job. In public companies, this information is often easily accessible via the management summary in their filings. Find where the company is listed and look for their filings; within the management summary they will call out their business strategy, risks and how they plan to mitigate them, big projects planned, big customer gained etc. Investor relations pages on the corporate website are also good sources of relevant information.
Searches on aggregators like Google News usually turn up press releases that provide further insight into the company’s activities and successes. Taking a look for other jobs advertised via LinkedIn and job boards, in order to identify what skill sets they are hiring for, thus providing further insight into what they’re building. In the case of companies that are listed or part of larger groups, research their financials, taking a look at their stability and analyst perspectives.
Who has worked there?
A search on LinkedIn will help you identify people who currently work at your prospective employer or who recently left. These can be a useful resource for identifying what the culture is like and what problems the company might be hiding. It goes without saying that these opinions need to be taken with a pinch of salt however, as neither current nor former employees will ever be entirely objective.
By examining the current and past employees, you can get a good sense of the sort of people they have and whether the business is changing. For example, if a rapidly growing company has started to lose its original team, that might indicate that it is slowing down and is no longer so exciting. Equally, if a notably talented group has recently joined (people with a background at leading companies in their fields, for example) then this could indicate an incubated startup or transformation.
Business issues and how you contribute to the goal
Understanding their market and business are useful, but these just form the foundation of identifying what issues their business is facing and how they relate to your area. Everything up until now has been showing them that you have taken the time to learn about them before showing up. Now it’s time to show that you have thought about how you can fix some of their pains: it’s the difference between saying “this is your company” and “this is what I can do for your company”.
At this point it’s worth considering wider issues that you may have identified during your research, and asking specific questions to clarify areas you are unsure about. The company’s key projects, risks, technologies and team structure are all relevant as by addressing them you show an awareness of the company’s challenges and how you would need to go about solving them.
This is valid for every domain in a company. For example, if a company needs to grow quickly, developers might look at building scalable, robust systems; marketers might talk about market segmentation go to market strategy; and sales people could discuss their expertise in business development. Meanwhile, accountants could raise experience with cash flow and due diligence to show how good financial management underpins strong growth.
Remember throughout that the goal is to be able to answer the hiring manager’s biggest question: “why do you want this job?” All of the research tips above are aiming to get you to the point of being able to answer this question so that both you and they know you’ll be a great hire.